Author: maithaaltamimi

I Attended My Second Guantanamo Bay, Cuba Periodic Review Board (PRB) Hearing at the Pentagon

At the Pentagon, With Professor George Edwards, Founder of the Guantanamo Military Commissions Observation Project, and IU McKinney Program in International Human Rights Law.

This morning, 17 September2019, I traveled to the Pentagon for the second time, this time to attend a Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing for Mr. Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani (ISN 1461), who is a prisoner being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been for more than 15 years.

Periodic Review Boards (PRBs)

The Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) process was established on 7 March 2011 upon an Executive Order by President Obama who sought to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. The PRB is a discretionary administrative process with the stated purpose of seeking to determine whether each prisoner held at Guantanamo “continues to be a threat” to U.S. national security.  

Today, Mr. Rabbani had a PRB hearing, at which he had an opportunity to plead with the U.S government to release him from Guantanamo.

Background on Mr. Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani (ISN 1461)

Mr. Rabbani is an alleged travel and financial facilitator for alleged al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It is alleged that Mr. Rabbani’s main job was to operate al Qaeda safe houses in Karachi, Pakistan, facilitate travel of Mujahidin and their families to and from Afghanistan, and acquire and drive vehicles.  He is also suspected of having links with Osama Bin Laden.

Mr. Rabbani is a Pakistani citizen and was born in Saudi Arabia in October 1969 and raised there. According to a JTF-GTMO Detainee Assessment document, Mr. Rabbani was arrested in September 2002 in Pakistan during a raid of guest houses that he operated along with others. He was held in Pakistani custody until he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in September 2004.

Mr. Rabbani is now under a PRB subsequent full review, which is a hearing permitted to every detainee every three years if their Initial and File review hearings are declined.

Today’s Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing for Mr. Abdul Malik

Since this is my second time visiting the Pentagon, I was familiar with the process to expect. I arrived at the Pentagon today at 8:00 a.m. (Tuesday, 17 September 2019), showed my passport, cleared through rounds of high security, and went to the Pentagon waiting area waiting for the other observers.  While waiting, I had the opportunity to talk with the other observers. We were 3 Observers plus one member of the media. I was the Observer who represented the Indiana University McKinney School of Law, and the other two Observers represented Judicial Watch and Human Rights First. A media representative from al Jazeera was present. Though governmental representatives may also view PRBs from this venue, none were present today.

Around 8:30 a.m., the four of us were escorted to a secure conference room in the Pentagon to observe the hearing broadcasted while it is happening live from Guantanamo Bay. The hearing was broadcasted through a TV screen in the middle of the room.  Before we entered that room, we had to leave our cell phones and cameras on a table outside the conference room. Once inside the room, we had to sign a form that indicated rules for a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility), such as, no recording devices.

The hearing started around 9:05 a.m.

The TV screen was switched to the hearing where we can see a US military official sitting in front of a table. The PRB started with an off-screen voice, presumably of a U.S. military official, calling out the names of the six U.S. government departments participating in the PRB, and making other preliminary announcements. The six departments are Department of Defense; Department of State, Department of Justice; Department of Homeland Security; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Then, the U.S. military official read out an “Unclassified Statement”, which is now posted online[1], and gives an [alleged] general background about the detainee. It reads as follows:

Text Box: Photo of the Unclassified Statement

“Mohammed Ahmed Ghulam Rabbani (PK-J 461), a.k.a. Abu Badr, was a financial and travel facilitator for al-Qaida leaders Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KU-10024) and USS Cole mastermind Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri from 1997 until his arrest in September 2002 during a raid of guest house that Abu Badr was operating with his brother Abdul Rabbani (PK-1460) IN Karachi, Pakistan. His primary jobs were to run al-Qaida safe houses in Karachi, facilitate travel of mujahedeen and their families to and from Afghanistan, and acquire and drive vehicles. Abu Badr lived in Saudi Arabia until his early 20s but spent his active jihadist years in Pakistan.”

Later, the appointed personal representative for Mr. Rabbani read out a statement. This statement is posted online[2] for the public. She noted in her statement that she has scheduled over 40 meetings during the past months with Mr. Rabbani. However, Mr. Rabbani has not accepted to attend any of the meetings. The personal representative said that Mr. Rabbani does not feel that the current political situation will allow any detainee to depart GTMO.  The personal representative reiterated that she will continue scheduling meetings with Mr. Rabbani.

With that, the public session was concluded at 9:11 a.m. about 4 minutes after it began.

Reflections and preparation for Guantanamo Bay

This is my second time attending a hearing at the Pentagon related to Guantanamo detainees. This time, since the Personal Representative Statement was published online before the hearing stating that the detainee will not be attending, and considering last’ time discussion with the other NGO observers about how prisoners’ are losing hope on the process, I expected this hearing to be short.  

After attending my second PRB, I started to get a better understanding of the current proceedings.  It appears that detainees are increasingly refusing to attend the PRB hearings. This comes to no surprise considering the current political environment and that no detainee has been successfully released through the PRB process since the current Administration assumed power, and the five detainees who were cleared for transfer by the PRB process during Obama Administration remain at Guantanamo.  It appears that the process is losing its meaning and trust. With no changes or progress in the proceedings, it is expected that more detainees will stop cooperating.

Although PRB hearings so far were very short and expected, it still provides an insight into how PRB hearings are being held. It is a unique opportunity for those who are interested in learning more about the Guantanamo detainees, prisoners’ rights and prosecuting alleged war criminals. I look forward to continuing learning about the PRBs process and having the opportunity to attend more PRBs in the future.  I look forward to my upcoming visit to Guantanamo Bay to attend and observe the military commission hearings.

Maitha Salem Altamimi

Master of Laws (LL.M.) Candidate, International Human Rights Law Track (2019)

Military Commission Observation Project Trial Observer / Monitor

Program in International Human Rights Law

Indiana University McKinney School of Law

October 14th, 2019

Note: Progress of the case

As of October 17th  29th, 2019, The Periodic Review Board released “Unclassified Summary of Final Determination” determining that “continued law of war detention of the detainee (Mr. Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani) remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

The Full Unclassified Summary of Final Determination is available at; https://www.prs.mil/Review-Information/Subsequent-Full-Review/


[1] Full statement is posted at https://www.prs.mil/Portals/60/Documents/ISN1461/SubsequentHearing1/20190604_U_ISN_1461_UNCLASSIFIED_SUMMARY.pdf Access to other related documents is at https://www.prs.mil/Review-Information/Subsequent-Full-Review/

[2] Access to the full statement is at https://www.prs.mil/Review-Information/Subsequent-Full-Review/

I Attended a Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) Hearing at the Pentagon

  This morning, Tuesday 30 July 2019, I traveled to the Pentagon where I attended a Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing for Mr. Abdul Malik, who is a prisoner being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been for more than 12 years.

Part I of this blog post describes who I am and how I came to attend this PRB. Part II describes the PRB, which is an administrative parole-like process that was created by President Obama in 2011 as he was seeking to close Guantanamo’s detention facilities. Part III discusses the background of Mr. Malik. Part IV discusses Mr. Malik’s PRB.

  1. My background

I am from the United Arab Emirates, and received a U.S. government Fulbright scholarship to study for my LL.M. degree at Indiana McKinney School of Law, where I am in the International Human Rights Law Track. I have taken international human rights law classroom classes, and am currently working as an immigration intern at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Silver Spring, Maryland, through McKinney’s Program in International Human Rights Law.

I received my first law degree from UAE University in 2015, and a post-graduate diploma in UAE Diplomacy and International Relations from Emirates Diplomatic Academy in 2017. After earning those degrees, I worked for 2 years in the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment as a legal researcher and 5 months as an analyst in a Minster of State office.

During my work and studies, I developed an interest and passion towards topics related to International Human Rights Law.

At Indiana McKinney, I learned that Professor Edwards founded two projects related to Guantanamo Bay. The first is the Military Commission Observation Project, that sends McKinney Affiliates (faculty, staff, students, graduates) to Guantanamo Bay base to monitor U.S. military commission hearings live, and to Ft. Meade, Maryland, where they can view military commission hearings by CCTV. The second is the Periodic Review Board (PRB) Observation Project that sends McKinney Law Affiliates to the Pentagon to monitor PRBs (which I explain below). I applied for both projects and received clearance to attend today’s PRB hearing at the Pentagon. I am still waiting for approval to travel to Guantanamo, Cuba to attend the Military Commissions hearings.    

As a lawyer who has been working to become a human rights advocate, I have long been interested in various topics related to human rights. Among those topics is prisoners’ rights; the right to a fair trial, the right not to be tortured, etc. Nowadays, it appears that many of these rights have been neglected or overlooked especially when these rights intersect with terrorism, politics and national security.  I have been thinking about how we can balance between ensuring justice and human rights while considering politics and national security.

I hope my Guantanamo experiences will offer me a better practical understanding of these pressing issues.

  1. Periodic Review Boards (PRBs)

The Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) process was established on 7 March 2011 upon an Executive Order by President Obama who sought to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. The PRB is a discretionary administrative process with the stated purpose of seeking to determine whether each prisoner held at Guantanamo “continues to be a threat” to U.S. national security.  The PRB does not address the legality of the detention of any prisoner, or the guilt or innocence of any prisoner, and only addresses the issue of threat to U.S. national security.    The question of whether a detainee is guilty is determined by a separate Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

If a PRB determines that a prisoner is “no longer a threat”, the prisoner can be cleared to be released from Guantanamo, either to be repatriated to his country or transferred to resettle in a third country. The members of the PRB include one representative of each of the following: Department of Defense; Department of State, Department of Justice; Department of Homeland Security; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Every detainee in a PRB proceeding is provided with a personal representative who is a uniformed U.S. military officer whose role is to assist and advocates on behalf of the prisoner during the PRB process.

More information about PRB’s hearing and decisions is available at www.prs.mil and https://gitmoobserver.com/prbs/  

  1. Background on Mr. Abdul Malik.

Mr. Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu (known as Abdul Malik), who is from Kenya, was born on 11 November 1973. He has been held at Guantanamo since 2007, after being suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda of East Africa (AQEA) and participating in the 2002 attacks against the Paradise Hotel and an Israeli aircraft in Mombasa, Kenya. He was arrested in 2007 by Kenyan authorities and transferred to US custody a few weeks later.

Mr. Abdul Malik has been afforded multiple levels of PRBs, including an initial review and file reviews. The current PRB is considered to be a “subsequent full review”, which is a hearing permitted to prisoners every three years if their initial and file review hearings are not successful. Each of his PRBs offered him the opportunity to ask the United States government to release him from Guantanamo.

  1. Today’s Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing for Mr. Abdul Malik
At the Pentagon, with Professor George Edwards, Founder of the Guantanamo Military Commissions Observation Project, and IU McKinney Program in International Human Rights Law.

I arrived at the Pentagon today at 7:30 a.m. (Tuesday, 30 July 2019), cleared through a round of security, and went to the waiting area waiting for the rest of the observers.  Sometime after, Professor George Edwards and other representatives from different Organizations arrived. While waiting, I had the opportunity to talk with the other Observers. We were 5 Observers in total. I and Professor Edwards represented Indiana University McKinney Law School and the other three representatives were from Judicial Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Human Rights First.

Around 8:30, military officials in uniform came to escort us through more security channels, and take us to a secure Pentagon conference room to observe the hearing broadcasted while it is happening live at Guantanamo. We were to watch the hearing broadcasted through a TV screen in the middle of the room.  Before we entered that room, we had to leave our cell phones and cameras on a table outside. Once inside the room, we had to sign a form that indicated rules for a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility), such as, no recording devices.

The hearing was scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m., but started late, around 9:05 a.m. The TV screen was switched to the hearing channel. We could see the hearing room, which I understand is in a courtroom at Guantanamo Bay.

The PRB started with an off-camera voice, presumably of a U.S. military official, making introductory remarks, including calling out the names of the US departments participating in the PRB. Then, the U.S. military official read out an “Unclassified Statement”. The statement is posted online[1], and it makes allegations regarding the general background of the prisoner. It is read as follows:

“Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu (KE-10025) was inspired by a radical imam to leave Kenya in 1996 to receive extremist training in Somalia, where he developed a close relationship with members of al-Qa’ida in East Africa (AQEA), including senior operational planners such as Harun Fazul.  Bajabu became an AQEA facilitator and was closely involved in the preparation and execution of the attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, in November 2002 against the Paradise Hotel and Israeli aircraft.  In February 2007, Kenyan authorities arrested Mr. Bajabu for his involvement in the Mombasa attacks and transferred him to US custody a few weeks later.”

Later, Mr. Abdul Malik’s appointed personal representative read out a statement. At the time of the hearing, this statement was not posted online for the public. He noted in his statement that he has scheduled 15 meeting during the past 7 months with Mr. Abdul Malik, and Mr. Abdul Malik accepted to attend five out of the 15 meetings requests. The last meeting was scheduled on July 29, 2019, one day before this board hearing which according to the personal representative, Mr. Abdul Malik again refused to attend. Mr. Abdul Malik did not attend the public portion of the scheduled PRB today. The personal representative stated that he will continue scheduling meetings with Mr. Abdul Malik. 

With that, the public session was concluded about 4 minutes and 44 seconds after it began.

Reflections

This was my first time attending a Guantanamo hearing and my first time attending a hearing at the Pentagon.  I did not know what to expect, but definitely, I expected the hearing to last longer. According to the other Observers who have been attending these hearings for a long time, it is usual for a PRB hearing to be this quick (fewer than 5 minutes). I also expected Mr. Abdul Malik to be present at the hearing. However, it appears that Guantanamo prisoners may be choosing not to attend their PRBs because they see little chance of being released after a PRB, given the current political environment, the fact that no prisoners have been released through the PRB process since the current U.S. Administration assumed power, and that even some prisoners who were cleared by the PRB process during Obama Administration are still in Guantanamo and not yet released.  Current prisoners are losing hope in this process. I suspect that more prisoners will stop attending PRB hearings.

Visiting the Pentagon.

On a different note, this was my first time visiting the Pentagon. It a very big and beautiful building. I didn’t see much of the place, but hopefully next time I visit, I can take a building tour.  Although the hearing was very short, it was worth attending. It offers insight into the PRB and how the hearings are being held. It a unique opportunity for those who are interested in learning more about the Guantanamo prisoners. I look forward to learning more about the PRBs process, and to have the opportunity to attend more PRB hearings at the pentagon.  Ideally, the prisoners will attend the next PRB hearing I attend.

I’m still waiting for my security clearance to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to observe the military commission proceedings live. This opportunity would definitely provide me with a better understanding of the Guantanamo Military Commission proceedings.

Maitha Salem Altamimi

Master of Laws (LL.M.) Candidate, International Human Rights Law Track (2019)

Military Commission Observation Project Trial Observer / Monitor

Program in International Human Rights Law

Indiana University McKinney School of Law

July 31st, 2019

Note: Progress of the case

As of August 29th, 2019, The Periodic Review Board released “Unclassified Summary of Final Determination” determining that “continued law of war detention of the detainee [Mr. Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu] remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

The Full Unclassified Summary of Final Determination is available at: https://www.prs.mil/Review-Information/Subsequent-Full-Review/


[1] Access to the Unclassified Statement is at https://www.prs.mil/Portals/60/Documents/ISN10025/SubsequentReview1/20190326_U_ISN_10025_UNCLASSIFIED_SUMMARY.pdf

Access to other related documents is at https://www.prs.mil/Review-Information/Subsequent-Full-Review/

I traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Monitor Hearings in the case against 5 alleged 9/11 attack masterminds.

Text Box: At GTMO airport, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with Chuck Dunlap, IU McKinney JD graduate
At GTMO airport, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with Chuck Dunlap, IU McKinney JD graduate

The Indiana University McKinney School of Law’s Military Commission Observation Program nominated me to the Pentagon for me to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to monitor U.S. Military Commission hearings. The hearings I was assigned to were in the case against 5 alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Pentagon granted me clearance to travel to Guantanamo from 21 to 28 September 2019

Before my trip, I only knew of Guantanamo from the news, documentaries, and movies. I never thought or imagined that I would have the opportunity to be personally present in Guantanamo as an NGO observer. There are so many aspects of this visit to reflect on but I will confine my discussion to the following.

This blog has 6 Parts. Part I describes my Guantanamo mission. Part II describes the substance of the hearings against the 5 alleged 9/11 masterminds. Part III are some of my personal reflections. Part IV describes the courtroom and the hearing setting. Part V discusses my personal experiences at Guantanamo. Part VI describes my last day at Guantanamo, 28 September 2019.

I included that my mission to Guantanamo was a very enriching experience, and I recommend it to any Indiana McKinney faculty or staff member, student or graduate.

  1. My Guantanamo mission
Text Box: Camp Justice, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Camp Justice, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

I have long been interested in topics related to human rights, including transparency, ensuring a fair trial, and striving to achieve justice. This is what initially sparked my interest in the Guantanamo Military Commission hearings.

My mission as a Non-Governmental Organization Observer (NGO) representing Indiana University McKinney School of Law, was to attend, observe / monitor, be seen, analyze, critique and report on the Guantanamo proceedings.

“At Guantanamo bay justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.” Guantanamo Bay NGO Challenge Coin

“What happens at Guantanamo Bay should not stay at Guantanamo Bay.”

To fulfill this mission, I acknowledged my responsibilities to be independent and objective in my observations and to try to gain a good understanding of how the Guantanamo proceedings are being held, and an understanding of whether the rights and interests of all Guantanamo stakeholders were being afforded to them.

  1. The substance of the hearings

Trial date set for the long-running case.

https://pihrlmcop.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/photo-masterminds-4.jpg
Note: photos are taken from Google Search, and may not be the best representation of how defendants look today.

The 9/11 case is one of the longest ongoing cases of the 21st century, having begun with an arraignment in 2012, which followed an earlier version of the case that was dismissed. 

On 5 May 2012, the five defendants; (1) Mr. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, (2) Mr. Walid bin Attash, (3) Mr. Ramzi bin al Shibh, (4) Mr. Ammar Al Baluchi, and (5) Mr. Mustafa Al Hawsawi, were charged with war crimes. After almost eight years of pretrial hearings, Judge Cohen, the current presiding military judge who is the third military judge to be assigned to the case, set a trial date for 11 January 2021.

While we waited outside the courtroom during court breaks, there was open speculation about whether this trial date would stick. But, it seems that the prosecution and defense teams must prepare the case for trial to commence on that date.

In addition to the prosecution and defense preparing, preparations must be made by the government, that will be responsible for the logistics of a large trial that will attract hundreds of new people to a small, remote military base that was not originally designed for such a proceeding and still lacks some basics needs, such as housing for all the media who will likely be interested in covering the trial.

Motion arguments, testimony

During the week I was in Guantanamo, Judge Cohen heard arguments on several motions and heard testimonies of several witnesses. They are outlined as below:

  1. Motion to Suppress Defendants’ Coerced Testimonies.

The five defendants were captured between 2002 and 2003 and were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. The evidence shows that between the time they were captured and the time they were taken to Guantanamo, these five men were held in secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prisons known as “black sites”. The CIA has invested over 81 million dollars and enlisted two psychiatrists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, to design “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) (that defense counsel and others refer to as “torture”) used against these defendants and others held at the CIA black sites. Both psychiatrists have been called to testify in January 2020 in this 9/11 case.

We heard witness testimony connected to the motion to suppress alleged coerced statements (involuntary statements obtained by enhanced interrogation/torture). This week, we observed the testimony of:   

  • Special Agent Stephen McClain. He was part of the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF) that was tasked to get “clean” testimony in 2007 from defendants to be used later in court. Agent McClain’s testimony was taken via CCTV. The questions asked were about whether interrogation was conducted in a voluntary, non-hostile way, and whether Article 31 from the Uniform Code of Military Justice UCMJ (right to remain silent, be informed, right to counsel, and any statement can be used against you) was given to the defendants.
  • Judge Bernard E. Delury. He presided at the 2007 Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) tribunal hearings for each of the five defendants. The questions asked of him were focused on the competency and the demeanor of the defendants, whether the 2007 tribunal was conducted fairly, and whether any of plea deals or confessions were made involuntarily. “CSRTS were not criminal proceedings,” Judge Bernard E. DeLury stated that the purpose of the CSRT service in Guantanamo Bay in 2007, over which he presided for all five defendants, was not to decide guilt or innocence.  He stated that the tribunal was an administrative fact-finding tribunal. Four of the five defendants attended the CSRT. Mr. Ramzi bin al Shibh chose not to attend. Judge DeLury might be called again to the witness stand to be examined by other defense counsels (maybe via CCTV).
  • Mr. D.J. Fife, Latent Print Examiner. Mr. Fife, of the FBI, was the fingerprint examiner in the clean team and was present at the 2007 tribunal. The questions asked of him were around “known fingerprints” and “latent prints”, when and how the defendants’ fingerprints were taken, and the chain of custody.

Both the prosecution and the defense examined the witnesses. The defense presented arguments supporting the claim of torture and coerced statements. On the other hand, the prosecution presented arguments supporting that 2007 interrogations were conducted voluntarily, that defendants could’ve stopped the integrations at any time and that their demeanor was appropriate and had no sign of sociological issues. There were also classified sessions which we, the NGOs, were not permitted to observe and where more information was presented. The Judge has not made a decision yet about the motion to suppress.

  1. Motion to compel the prosecution to meet a discovery request.

The defense team asked the judge to compel the prosecution to meet a discovery request. Defense attorneys argued that they can’t meet their deadlines or submit motions if the prosecution does not turn over discovery as required, and the government keeps withholding information: “I don’t want to spend another 10 years on this case” said Mr. Walter Ruiz, lawyer for one of the defendants, Mr. Mustafa al Hawsawi.

On the same topic, defense attorneys argued the prosecution over-redacted documents, and the classification and declassification of information with no clear guidance makes the defense job very challenging.

During the hearing, I noticed that the defense attorneys when examining witnesses would often point out they intended not to ask questions related to classified/or national security information and that the witness has the option not to answer questions that would call on them to reveal classified/ or national security information.

  1. Mustafa Al Hawsawi’s medical condition.

Mr. James Harrington, Ramzi bin al Shibh’s lawyer, asked Judge Cohen judge to recognize the ongoing after-effects of torture on his client. He said that Mr. al Shibh still hears noises, feels vibrations, itches, and pins and needles on his body. Mr. al Shibh believes that someone is doing this to him. Mr. Harrington also mentioned that having a psychiatrist meet with Mr. al Shibh is not an option, because Mr. al Shibh is still traumatized by the negative experiences he had in the black sites by the psychiatrists. 

The prosecution objected, saying that there is no evidence to prove what Mr. al Shibh is arguing and that there is no need to re-litigate this issue.

  1. Motion to compel Mental Health Evaluation on Ammar Al Baluchi

The prosecution submitted this motion in response to the defense’s argument that Mr. al Baluchi has developed “learned helplessness”. Defense Counsel Mr. Connell objected to this request on the basis that there is no need for more mental health examinations of his client. Mr. Connell added that his client has been subjected to at least 400 psychological evaluations and there is no need to have 401 evaluations. The prosecution objected and said that none of the previous psychological evaluations were forensic.

The Judge has not decided on this motion.

  1. Other logistical and scheduling matters were presented to the judge mainly by the defense teams:
  • The defense argued about “poor conditions” where the defense lawyers meet with their clients, “Camp Echo II”, and that because of a recent storm, the court feed was cut off in the defendants ’ rooms;
  • The poor condition of defense lawyers’ offices.  The prosecution responded and promised to provide a workable solution;
  • The number of days needed to examine the coming witnesses was discussed. It is expected that examining James Mitchell will take over a week because of the intensity of the documents and that all five defense lawyers and prosecution will want to ask him questions;
  • Scheduling hearing days and taking out Ramadan from the schedule;
  • The defense team asked the judge to consider the defendants’ emotional effect of staying in one room for ten hours with the person who tortured them.
  1. Personal reflections

Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.”

Thus, according to international law, everyone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law.

During the hearings on of the prosecutors argued this:  “The man on my left [pointing at Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] made a choice and he is the reason we are here”.

That prosecutor was responding to an earlier statement made by Ms. Rita Radostitz, Mr. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad’s lawyer:

“The US government has made some choices, they chose to put the defendants in black sites, to torture them, and to bring and trial them in Guantanamo, and they need to take responsibility”.

Ms. Rita Radostitz later responded to the prosecution pointing out that the presumption of innocence is the core principle of the American judicial system.

Without going in details and pointing at who violated what, observing this case made realize that the decisions this court makes and whatever are the outcomes of these proceedings will not just affect this case, but also will influence the future prosecution of alleged war criminals in Guantanamo and around the world.

Challenges in this case

There are many challenges this case faces. One of those main challenges is the “Classification of information and over redaction of documents.” Just recently the government has unclassified three completely redacted pages, makes me question the basis in which information is considered classified. The redacted documents are here: https://www.mc.mil/Portals/0/pdfs/KSM2/KSM%20II%20(AE286EE(MAH)).pdf

It is expected, especially in a high level and sensitive proceedings such as the one before us, that the government may find a need to classify and redact information from the public for national security reasons. Nonetheless, it is crucial to ensure that it is not abused, especially considering that national security is defined by governments, which is not necessarily unified and may result in delay if not obstructing justice.

Torture was another vital focus of the hearing. Though prosecution did not directly deny nor agree to government torturing defendants, It was alarming to learn what the defendants endured in the black sites, according to statements made in court and government documents available to the public.   According to Mr. Gary Sowards, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s defense attorney:

“Mr. Mohammed was in continuous government custody for four years, was hung naked in his cell, deprived of sleep, anally raped and was subjected to 183 mock executions, that police had kidnapped and abused his children and threatened to kill his children.”

I believe that nothing justifies this type of torture, where government spent millions of dollars to design what they call “Enhanced interrogation” and implement it on people most of whom were released after with no charge.

  1. The hearing setting
Text Box: Photo taken from New York Times journalist Carol Rosenberg twitter. You can see the viewing gallery behind the glass windows in the back of the courtroom.
Photo taken from New York Times journalist Carol Rosenberg twitter. You can see the viewing gallery behind the glass windows at the back of the courtroom.

One of the things I wanted to observe during my visit is the setting of the military commission hearings and how it is being held. And whether it is different than the setting of criminal hearings of sensitive and classified nature conducted in the United States.

The Observers were seated in a sound-proof gallery separated by a glass window at the back of the courtroom (as shown in the photo). The observing gallery room included NGOs/media observers and the victims’ family members. Both groups were separated by a divider (a curtain).  The victims’ family member are chosen based on a lottery system.

 Every morning in the gallery before the hearing starts, one of the guards read out the observers’ rules which included no sleeping, no laughing, being respectful, and no doodling or drawing.

Before we entered the gallery, we went through a security check, where our bags were checked and all types of electronics (USBs, chargers, cameras, etc.) were left in a locker at the entrance. 

Through the glass window in the gallery, we could see the actual hearing room and what was happening, the judge, defendants, defense attorneys, prosecution, military personnel, and others. We had five TV monitors in the gallery which broadcast the hearing on a 40-second delay. At first, it felt strange, but I got used to it with time. It is startling how long 40 seconds can feel.

Through the glass, we could see the defendants accompanied by military guards to the courtroom. The defendants were dressed in civilian clothes.

One of the things I found interesting was seeing the female lawyers wearing hijabs (headscarf). While talking to observers and lawyers, we came to know that the reason female lawyers wore it is out of respect to their clients. Though it might not be a very compelling reason for many, I think it is a good approach to build trust and establish a relationship between a lawyer and a client.  

Hearings usually run Monday through Friday. It starts at 9:00am to 12:00pm or 1:00pm. Depending on the pace of the day, and whether there was a classified session or not, the afternoon session usually starts at 2:15pms. We took multiple recesses in between.

Because of the thunderstorms during the week, we were told that some of the court facilities experienced water leakages, which caused some delays in transporting the defendants to the courtroom. Also, the audio feeds were affected in the media room and in Camp Echo II where defendants can watch their hearings if they choose not to attend.

Not all defendants decide to be present in every hearing, and so, over time, the commission has developed a waiver form for the defendant to sign if he does not wish to be present at the hearing. It is for the judge to decide whether the defendant has voluntarily waived his right to attend the scheduled hearing. This happened several times during the week I was at Guantanamo, and every time an army major (the Staff Judge Advocate – the lawyer for Camp 7, which is the secret camp where these 5 High-Value Detainees (HVDs) are being held) will take the stand and be asked by the judge whether the absent defendant wants to attend and if defendant signed the waiver. The judge also asks the lawyer if they have any objection to the waiver.

  1. My personal experience in Guantanamo

As an individual who only knew Guantanamo from news and movies, I imagined the place to be a big, deserted land-prison, with high fences and military personnel everywhere. The place was not exactly what I imagined. You still can see the desert, high fences, and military personnel everywhere, but not necessarily in their uniforms. There is definitely another side (other than the prison) of life in Gitmo.

The moment you step out of the small Guantanamo airport, you get the vibe of a small town.

Weather and Stores.

Photo taken of Cable Beach, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The weather is typical Caribbean weather, where it’s hot and humid most of the time, with some rain. You can find pretty much everything you would find in a small town in another country. There is one café that serves Starbucks coffee, one McDonald, a couple of Subway and one big grocery store (Navy Exchange NEX).

Touring

We spent the first two days in Guantanamo touring the base and exploring its facilities. We visited several beaches, including Glass Beach and Cable Beach. We also went to a place called “Windmill Hill” where you can see most of the Base. We were asked not to take pictures in certain places and certain directions.  We drove by Camp X-Ray (the camp where the defendants were initially brought in January 2002, wearing orange jumpsuits). It is currently closed and from the look of it, there is nothing left but the recollection of those who were detained and those who were guards there.

Photo taken of the Sunset at the Marina, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
With Nicole E Cote, Observer from Toledo University, in front of a Refugee Haitian boat that was used in the 1990s

Foreign laborers

The more time you spend in Guantanamo, the more you start noticing a lot of laborers from third countries, e.g. the Philippines, Haiti, and Jamaica. We were told by our escorts that these third-country workers are paid very little and that tipping them is very common. This made me question labor rights and fair wages on top of everything else.

Cubans at Guantanamo

There are not many Cubans left on the base. The ones that are still there are old now and have been placed in a homecare facility.

Families

You also see families who live in GTMO with their kids. Yes, there are children in Guantanamo, along with a school that accommodates all grades up to high school.

Our living conditions at Guantanamo

The living for me and other observers/monitors at Guantanamo were decent, not great nor bad. The air conditioning is kept very cold inside the living quarters – which are big tents – so animals like iguanas and banana rats (which are very common in Guantanamo) do not come inside the tents.

Bathrooms and showers, on the other hand, were questionable. Because of the constant rain, we had during the week, one day the female bathroom tent was completely shut down.

A good tip for future observers is to shower at the Guantanamo gym, which most of our group ended up doing for the rest of the week. It is a good facility and you can join some gym classes if you have the time.

Our escorts

We had an escort with us most of the time. They helped us commute from one place to another, and also addressed our requests and answered questions.

Food

There are several food options (not many) at the base. My favorite was the food served at the Mongolian barbecue, held every Thursday night. You pick your veggies and protein and then head to the grill for the chef to cook your selection with your choice of rice or noodles.

Photo taken of inside the Chapel at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Photo taken of inside the Mosque at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

 Religious practices

The base also has sanctuary spaces for people on the base to practice their religions. We visited the Chapel and I visited the Mosque where I observed the Friday prayer and spoke to a couple of interrupters who work at the base.

Who were the other observers/monitors with me?

The week I was at Guantanamo, NGO representatives were present from the New York City Bar Association, University of Toledo College of Law, Judicial Watch, Human Right First, National Institute for Military Justice, and Georgetown University School of Law.  I enjoyed spending time with them, as every one of them had different, very diverse backgrounds and observations on the proceedings.

Photo taken with the NGOs group. It includes myself and Ms. Nicole E Cote, Toledo University observer, Mr. Robert Sticht, Judicial Watch observer, Ms. Amanda Strayer, Human Right First observer, Mr.Ari Rubin, Georgetown University School of Law observer, and Mr. Vikram Jagadish, New York City Bar Association observer
  1. My last day in Guantanamo Bay – 28 September 2019.

It was time to say goodbye and head back to the U.S. It was only one week, but it was enough to leave me with a profound impression that I will never forget.

I landed at Guantanamo with mixed feelings, and I had mixed feelings when I returned at the end to Joint Base Andrews (Andrews Air Force Base) in Maryland.

It was good to be back home and reflect on everything that I have learned. I do not know if I will go back again to Guantanamo, but I look forward to seeing how the 9/11 case unfolds in the coming pre-trial hearings and the coming 2021 trial. 

Overall, it’s been an incredibly enriching experience. It was overwhelming in parts especially when I heard about the extensive enhanced interrogation techniques/torture that the defendant endured. But also, it was promising to see so many people working tirelessly to defend the defendant s’ rights and ensuring justice is served.

Today, after being held for at least 17 years without a court conviction, there is finally a trial date set for January 11, 2021.

Despite the lack of political consensus to shut down Guantanamo and the unclear future of the remaining uncharged detainees in Guantanamo, and regardless of innocence or guilt; every prisoner is entitled to basic human rights: access to justice and a fair trial, right to dignity and not to be tortured, access to legal representation.

It is unclear what the outcome of this trial will be, but it is certainly will impact current and future prosecutions involved alleged terrorists around the world.

Maitha Salem Altamimi

Master of Laws (LL.M.), International Human Rights Law Track (2019)

Military Commission Observation Project Trial Observer / Monitor

Program in International Human Rights Law

Indiana University McKinney School of Law

October 27th, 2019

Cleared to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to observe the Pre-Trial Hearings in the case against the alleged 9/11 attack masterminds

 I was recently informed that I have been cleared to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to observe / monitor pre-trial hearings in the U.S. Military Commission case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and 4 other alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon. I am a Master of Laws (LL.M.) student at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, and I will be traveling to Guantanamo through the Indiana law school’s Guantanamo Military Commissions Observation Project, founded by Professor George Edwards, who also founded Indiana’s Program in International Human Rights Law, which houses the Guantanamo project.

My Background

I am from the United Arab Emirates and received a U.S. government Fulbright scholarship to study for my LL.M. degree at Indiana McKinney School of Law, where I am in the International Human Rights Law Track. I have taken international human rights law classroom classes, and I am currently working as an immigration intern at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Silver Spring, Maryland, through McKinney’s Program in International Human Rights Law.

I received my first law degree from UAE University in 2015, and a post-graduate diploma in UAE Diplomacy and International Relations from Emirates Diplomatic Academy in 2017. After earning those degrees, I worked for 2 years in the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment as a legal researcher and 5 months as an analyst in a Minster of State office.

During my work and studies, I developed an interest and passion towards topics related to International Human Rights Law.

How I became interested in the Guantanamo Project

With Professor George Edwards, Founder of the Guantanamo Military Commissions Observation Project, and IU McKinney Program in International Human Rights Law.

During my LLM year at Indiana McKinney, I learned about two different Projects related to Guantanamo Bay: (a) the project related to Military Commissions (criminal trials held at Guantanamo, assessing a prisoner’s possible guilt); and (b) the project related to Periodic Review Boards (PRBs) (administrative hearings assessing prisoners’ perceived threat to national security and possible release from Guantanamo). Professor Edwards founded both projects, that both permit Indiana faculty, staff, students and graduates to attend, observe, be seen, analyze, critique and report on hearings either in person at Guantanamo Bay, or via CCTV at locations at the Pentagon, Ft. Meade (Maryland), or elsewhere in the U.S.  

I applied for the Guantanamo project and recently was notified by Professor Edwards that I received my first round of clearance to travel to Guantanamo, Cuba to attend the Military Commissions hearings.

My preparation for my mission to Guantanamo

After my initial round of clearance to travel to Guantanamo, while I was waiting for a secondary round of clearance for travel, I started preparing for my possible mission. I have been reading/watching different reports and articles and feeds on the topic from different resources:

Pre- Mission Reflections

As a lawyer who’s working to become a human rights advocate, I am interested in various topics related to human rights. Among those topics are prisoners’ rights; the right to a fair trial, the right not be tortured, etc. Nowadays, it appears that many of these rights have been neglected or overlooked especially when these rights intersect with terrorism, politics and national security.  In my opinion, it is worth exploring how we can strike a balance between ensuring justice and human rights while considering politics and national security. Where do we draw the line?

At this moment, my only real Guantanamo exposure has been from observing Guantanamo Periodic Review Board hearings at the Pentagon, and reading and watching the reports, news, documentaries, and movies mentioned above. I believe that by traveling to Guantanamo, I will learn more about the Guantanamo Military Commissions proceedings, and this will offer me a more practical understanding of the current situation there, as I think about how we can assess whether prisoners and other stakeholders’ rights are being fully afforded to them while assuring that justice is being served.

I am looking forward to my mission to Guantanamo Bay, and to sharing my observations on my experience there.

Maitha Salem Altamimi

Master of Laws (LL.M.), International Human Rights Law Track (2019)

Military Commission Observation Project Trial Observer / Monitor

Program in International Human Rights Law

Indiana University McKinney School of Law

October 27th, 2019


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/guantanamo/detainees/current

[2] www.GitmoObserver.com

[3] https://pihrlmcop.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/guantanamo-bay-fair-trial-manual-vol-i-26-february-2017-draft-to-print-to-gtmo.pdf

[4] https://gitmoobserver.com/know-before-you-go/

[5] https://twitter.com/carolrosenberg

[6] https://twitter.com/GitmoWatch